Monday, April 28, 2014

The new Russian problem - not that dissimilar from ...

... the old Russian problems and that is no coincidence, as the old Communist orators led by Stalin would have said.

In the last few months I have been musing about Russia and the many problems her people and the rest of us face. Partly this is connected to other work I have been doing but, inevitably, events in Ukraine have set many of us thinking or renewed previous thoughts. My plan is to write several general musings on the subject and that includes something that is of particular interest to me, the weird attitude Westerners and, particularly, many British writers and analysts (often self-appointed with little  knowledge) take to the country and its political rulers.

With no other country is there a widespread assumption that attacking or criticizing its government or the ruling regime is tantamount to criticizing the people and the country as a whole. One gets this from Russians but also from people who maintain that they like or love Russia and Russians yet cannot see that supporting those who oppress the latter is not a sign of those feelings. One can criticize David Cameron without being labelled anti-British, President Obama without being labelled anti-American except by the Obama-bots and even they are more interested in the "Saviour-like nature" of their hero than in the country as a whole, or President Hollande without being called a Francophobe. Yet the slightest mention of the possibility that Vladimir Putin and his entourage are not the wisest and most liberal and humanitarian rulers in the world brings down an avalanche of accusations of Russophobia. Russians imprisoned for demonstrating against the government? You are a Russophobe to say so. Russian economy being destroyed by the corruption of the ruling elite and its hangers on? What a Russophobic thing to say. The infrastructure is so bad that hundreds of thousands of people are left without power for weeks in the coldest weeks of winter in the Moscow region? Russophobe, Russophobe, Russophobe.

I shall enlarge on these various subjects in future postings but, first, let me recommend a book called It Was A Long Time Ago, And It Never Happened Anyway, subtitled Russia and the Communist Past by the journalist and historian David Satter who has, recently, been banned from Russia. (Full disclosure: David Satter is a friend.)

As the title indicates the main theme of the book is Russian refusal to know, understand or come to terms with the horrors of the Soviet period. Far from being "humiliated" by the West, as we are so often told, not least by Western apologists for Russian authoritarianism, Russia, even more than the other post-Soviet republics was allowed to ignore and fudge the truth about the twentieth century. Not so long ago I (and a few others) had a frank and open discussion with a Russian lady who maintained that she knew all about the years leading up to the Second World War, having studied with some of the best historians in Russia and read all there was to read thus being very well aware that the Soviet Union had shown no aggression in the early years of the war or the years leading up to it. It would appear she was unaware of such events as the Soviet invasion of Poland on September 17, 1939 or the Soviet invasion of Finland on 30 November, 1939. At least, there was an implication in her comments that she might have been aware of Soviet aggression at the end of the war but I did not ask too many questions.

One rather peculiar outcome of this refusal to face up to the truth is the duality of attitude that many Russians display. When one talks about the horrors of the Soviet Union, not only these are often brushed aside as being rather less important than people sometimes make it out but there is a firm assertion that it was not just the Russians who were guilty either directly or indirectly. That, of course, is true. Also, it is added sometimes, as the Russians were the victims (among others but that is often glossed over) it does not count as real political horror. On the other hand, according to the same people quite often, only Russians fought and suffered during the Second World War; others were either absent or collaborated.

In his introduction David Satter says:
Russia as a country has not been willing to face the full truth about Communism. Some people insist that the scale of the crimes has been exaggerated or that they were a product of necessity in a unique historical situation. Some say that there were comparable crimes in the West. Many argue that the Soviet system had redeeming features, that it brought literacy to millions of people and modernised the country. In fact, the failure to condemn Communism unreservedly - as Nazism was condemned in Germany - is now taken for granted in Russia.
We know what happens to people who point to the "redeeming features" of the Nazi system in Germany or the Fascist system in Italy.

In his Notes to the Introduction Satter wades into the discussion about the numbers of victims with all the necessary provisos:
The scale of murder in the Soviet Union was so immense that estimating the number of victims with any degree of accuracy is difficult if not impossible. Figures cited in recently available archival material are often in conflict with demographic data which places death tolls considerably higher.
In this book, I accept 20 million as the number of direct victims of the Soviet regime. This figure includes only those put to death by the regime or who died as a direct result of the regime's policies. It does not include the millions who died in wars, epidemics, and famines that were predictable consequences of Bolshevik policies but not entirely the result of them.
The figure of 20 million includes a minimum of 200,000 victims of the Red Terror (1918 - 1922); 11 million victims of famine and dekulakization in the 1930s; 700,000 persons who were executed between 1929 and 1953; 1.6 million persons who died in forced population transfers; and a minimum of 2.7 million persons who died in Gulag camps, labour colonies, and special settlements.
To the resulting figure of 16.6 million should be added persons who died in prisons, 975,000 Gulag prisoners released during the war to punitive battalions, where they faced almost certain death, the victims of partisan warfare in Ukraine and the Baltic republics after the war, and Gulag prisoners freed so that their deaths would not count in the mortality totals for the labour camps as well as other categories of victims across the length and breadth of a vast country.
It is easy to understand why such colossal figures (and that does not include the effect this would have had on the families of the victims, the low birth rate and the early deaths of many who had gone through the horrors of the prisons and the camps) are ignored or dismissed as being unimportant of merely the sign of the West being jealous, wanting to destroy Russia or to prevent her from becoming great again.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Commenting on news items

This blog seems to have very tolerant readers. I can understand them not complaining about the paucity of posts - a blessing in disguise to many - but not even mentioning the Brexit Prize and why have I not said anything about it is tolerance beyond what I can really expect. The reason is quite simple: I have not had time to read the winning three entries and do not feel qualified to comment on them until I do so, which will happen very soon.

In the meantime, I noticed a couple of items in the media, which made me snort with disgust and then laugh. The first was, naturally enough, Ed Miliband's sudden conversion to Judaism from the previous secular atheism and his announcement that he was hoping to become Britain's first Jewish Prime Minister. That would be the Ed Miliband who made some claims recently about the Labour Party being the party of One Nation, referring back specifically to Benjamin Disraeli who, as it happens, never used that phrase and was not interested in the concept.

What does he think Disraeli was? Clearly Mr Miliband has not ambitions to become a historically knowledgeable Prime Minister. (As it happens, I do not think he will become a Prime Minister of any kind but that is a separate issue.)

There is a good deal of discussion about whether Disraeli really was Jewish, having been baptized at the age of 12 and having been a practising Anglican in his adulthood. Well, yes, he was as Jewish as the completely secular atheist Ed Miliband, that is through his race and family. Furthermore, Judaism continued to be important to Disraeli, while Miliband has never referred to it until now. Does he really think this nonsense will win him the election?

The other item was Michael Rosen's Open Letter to the new Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, who, incidentally, will be the first Cabinet Member of Asian background. In it Mr Rosen casts doubt on Mr Javid's qualifications because, forsooth, he has not worked in culture but in banking for most of his life. So what does he know of culture? Well, the same might have been asked of T. S. Eliot who worked for some years in Lloyds Bank and, indeed, of a number of other writers and artists.

Guido Fawkes also points out that Rosen himself, apparently, thinks that he, a poet of moderate calibre (that is my view not Guido's) is entitled to have opinions about banking and pronounce them pompously in public.

My own view is that we do not need a Culture Secretary or a Department of State devoted to culture (or sport or media) and, therefore, that job is completely redundant. But if we are going to have somebody there it is much better to have someone who does not "work in culture" as Michael Rosen describes himself. The sign of a democracy, after all, is that civilians control all our the armed forces.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Happy 90th Birthday to Doris Day

One of my favourite singers and actresses here at the beginning of one of my favourite musicals.

Happy Birthday to one of the greatest.

That debate

I have a confession to make: I did not watch either of the Nick v. Nigel debates. Well, really, I couldn't, not having a TV set and having better things to do with my time. Yes, indeed, that patch of paint just was not going to dry without me watching it. Nor have I, as yet, read what the Boss had to say about the second debate on EUReferendum but I gather indirectly that he was rude about both participants. That, I am sure, will surprise those readers of this blog who have not read his analysis. I also gather that it is only the Farage supporters who have attacked him in return. The Cleggies don't care or don't read EURef.

It has not escaped my attention, though, that Mr Farage is deemed to  have won the debate with popular opinion going 2 to 1 in his favour. I have not seen the figures as to how many people actually watched either of the outings, especially the second one. Nor has it escaped my attention that there are calls for Mr Farage to be included in whatever TV extravaganza there will be in 2015 during the election campaign and for the Conservatives to do a deal with him rather than Mr Clegg.

To both of which Mr Cameron can reply with one argument: as long as UKIP has no MPs doing a deal with them is a meaningless concept and why should their leader be part of that TV debate, rather than the Greens (one MP) or George Galloway (himself an MP).

All that is, however, in the future. For the moment I remain underwhelmed for two reasons. One is that I have yet to see any evidence that anybody outside the Westminster bubble, which includes the media and political bloggers (guilty, as charged!), apart from a few political geeks and the entire membership of UKIP, cared enough to watch and express opinions.

Secondly, I happen to remember all those TV debates in 2010 that Nick Clegg was deemed to win hands down. (How David Cameron and whoever was the leader of the Labour Party must be laughing now!) There was, if you recall, much talk of a Lib-Dim surge on the back of that stellar performance, the only question being whether they would come second or actually first.

We all know what happened. As I said at the time:
For, sadly, the Lib-Dims increased their share of the vote by a measly 1 per cent, lost five seats, did not take several seats they were confidently expected to do and did very badly in the local elections (not that it makes any difference). Their reward: places in the Cabinet and the Deputy Premiership for their incompetent leader.
I have said it before and, no doubt, shall say it again: until UKIP starts winning seats in the House of Commons or, at least, come close, they will remain marginal and all the brouhaha about their performance will remain irrelevant, no matter how many pictures, articles or blog postings there are about Nigel Farage, who, I gather, is about to celebrate his 50th birthday at the Ritz. No, astonishingly enough, I was not invited.